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Dark chapters of mankind: The Apartheid Museum

  • The museum in Johannesburg provides insight into the turbulent history of South Africa
  • Photographs and other exhibits tell stories of the atrocities committed against the non-white population

The entrance to the Apartheid Museum has signs dating from the time segregation was the norm in South Africa. (Photo: Alamy)

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My entry pass states I am Nie Blanke (Afrikaans for non-white). I don’t like the term assigned to me. The colour of my skin is not something on the basis of which I ever want to be segregated. Pushing open the turnstile to enter the building, I notice how cramped the space is, with steep steps compared to the wide ramp in the Blanke section for whites.

These practices are designed as a discomfiting reminder to the visitor of the discriminations non-whites have faced in South Africa from the late 19th century, until as recently as the early 1990s. Set up in 2001, the Apartheid Museum is an evocative, sometimes even disturbing, record of South Africa’s recent turbulent past. It was built by the Gold Reef City consortium as part of their winning bid to build a casino, which is located right next door, and has gained a prestigious reputation as a record of 20th century South Africa. Where you stayed, what you ate, or how much you earned was determined by whether you were a native, coloured, Asian or white. The exhibits, experiences and cultural memorabilia at the museum showcase the extent to which this impacted social and political life.

I had once briefly encountered racism myself when I was addressed as “Paki”, courtesy my brown skin, while walking through the narrow lanes of London’s East End. Even that momentary experience had left me shaken. So when I learnt at the Apartheid Museum just how all pervasive racism had been in South Africa, I wondered how residents had coped.

Non-whites were frequently addressed as “kafir”, used by the whites as a derogatory term. They were forced to carry passes which controlled their movement in the country. There were a few of these on display at the museum, containing details of race, address, employer’s name, and the status of access granted to certain areas. Violation of pass laws meant harassment and arrest. No wonder these were abhorred by the blacks and called dompas (dumb pass).

Pictures on display on the museum’s walls tell stories of atrocities. I find the images created by Ernest Cole—the late South African photographer who had to flee his home country and whose book was banned there—powerful and riveting. Titled House Of Bondage, the book depicts the true plight of non-whites during the apartheid era.

In all, 148 laws were introduced during apartheid rule, resulting in the complete subjugation of a human being’s basic right to live. There are quotes from those who fought bravely for its end on display at the museum. These words by Nelson Mandela stand out: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”.

The previous day, I had visited Soweto, a 200 sq. km township in the gold city of Johannesburg. Today, it is home to people from all economic strata, but, in 1904, it was where blacks who were evicted from their homes in Coolietown and Brickfields were forced to live in a tented settlement. All this was done in the name of sanitation, a cover-up for apartheid. Sindi Swa, who spent her childhood in Soweto, says: “The non-whites were not allowed to own houses. It is only after the country became independent that we could own a residence.”

At the museum, I look at images of non-whites being forcibly separated in Sophiatown on the basis of colour and tribe on a rainy night. It reminds me of a poem by Don Mattera I had read before my trip to South Africa, The Day They Came For Our House, which so accurately depicted the brutality, and the despair of those who lost everything overnight and had to start afresh in the face of contempt.

One of the darkest spaces in the museum is the political execution room, where 131 nooses depict the execution of those who opposed the government. Many were tortured before they were hanged. Earlier, I had crossed a courtyard where seven pillars stood, representing the fundamental values of an apartheid-free South Africa’s constitution—democracy, equality, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility, respect and freedom.

The museum is a record of the brutal steps of that journey from utter subjugation to a present when these basic values that many of us take for granted are finally available to all South African citizens.

The museum is open every day of the week from 9am-5pm. Tickets for adults are 95 South African rand (around 470).

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